In the beginning was ATML
“We weren't a semiconductor company, originally ATML was a network systems company. But we designed our own chips for our network systems because we couldn't buy them off the shelf.”It was their move to fill a gap in the market and supply a steeply growing industry demand, that would turn their fortunes round. Virata went through a period of rapid expansion; the Cambridge site grew quickly and the company IPO’d in 1999.
Virata became Cambridge’s first billion-dollar company, and quickly went on an acquisition spree only to be acquired itself as its success continued to snowball.
Virata - a world beating brand you might never have heard of
“If you dialled up your high-speed DSL connection to bid on that special something on eBay, then your data probably passed through a Virata chip. If you bought a book from Amazon via a DSL connection, then you probably used Virata hardware and software. If you checked your email using a high-speed DSL connection, then it went a lot faster because of Virata.”from The New Business Road Test by Professor John Mullins, London Business School
Doxbox - an answer to the challenge of high tech businessAt the heart of their operations was a piece of software that was to remain one of the few constants in the way their business was organised even as it expanded and changed hands in the years to come.
“When I joined the company in '94, there weren’t many effective processes in place for controlling our documentation. It was that normal thing of shared network drives where you had a folder for drafts and you had a folder for review and a folder for approved documents. It was all down to people doing the right thing and remembering to do the right thing.”
Document management and control improves efficiency and collaboration
To try to improve the efficiency of their processes a developer at Virata volunteered to put together a piece of software that would serve two basic functions:
- Operate as a single location where everybody in the organisation could ‘store, label, index and retrieve’ all their documentation in a uniform way.
- Be a tool for the controlled release of those documents to customers and supply chain partners.
“For bigger companies, finding information is really hard. Having one tool that you can go to and search and find stuff when it’s all in one place and indexed, you can find the latest copy of some spec or see if it’s been changed. If you're working in a company of 4 or 5000 people, finding the latest document of something is difficult. That's why Cognidox was such a valuable tool to us as we grew.”
More functionality - more control
But as the complexity and value of the products Virata were developing also grew, so the importance of documentation became even more critical. To respond to this the Doxbox tool was further enhanced, reflecting the need for better governance and oversight at every stage of the design, production and delivery process.
“If we'd released something to a customer, we said we’d like to know that the right person within that customer had picked it up. We developed named licensees with individual accounts for each of those licensees, so they could log in and we’d know that the right person had picked up the right version of that file. We also started introducing things like a review and approval process for documentation. So we got visibility of who was approving what and capturing reasons for rejection and other information”In 2001, Virata merged with Globespan to become GlobespanVirata. Then GlobespanVirata was subsequently acquired by Conexant Systems in 2003. At each point, Doxbox was again reworked to deal with the larger company, serving multiple geographic sites and disparate product teams. Over the following years further acquisitions required additional functionality to support a more complex global organisation.
Information at your finger tipsWhen Cognidox was spun out of Conexant Systems by Paul Walsh and Vittal Aithal, it was this spirit of serving the evolving needs of their clients that still led the development of their software solutions. The tool had already begun to answer other, more sophisticated product development needs including supporting external auditing processes and, crucially, phase gating requirements. As Ian Stacey explains this is a vital part of high tech product development:
“Making a mistake in this market is very expensive. Deep sub micron chips now cost tens of million dollars to develop. You need to have very strict gates in place to decide whether you should move on to the next step. You don’t want to spend two or three years developing a chip and then find out it's the wrong thing or missed something critical.”
“If you need to have very strict review points, Cognidox basically allows you to create the flow you want. At DisplayLink we’ve used Cognidox to define certain gates in our processes, we create categories for each phase and align our documentation to those. Cognidox helps us manage our way through them and makes sure we have the right review and approval points that can be actioned by the right people.”
A scalable, flexible solution for the whole high tech development cycle
“In the end it doesn’t matter what development methodology you use. Most methodologies would say you should be documenting things, because that’s good practice. And if you have documentation it doesn’t matter if you’re running an agile flow or a phase gate flow, or whatever it is - you just need a way of being on the same page; controlling that documentation and knowing everyone is always referring to and using the most up-to-date version of it”
“At different stages of the development flow you might have different types of processes that you run. For example, in the early stages of a project, you can be pretty agile, as the chip and firmware guys help you iterate a solution. But then as you get into the back end of the chip design you have to go more ‘waterfall’ because there has to be a certain set of fixed flows which you can’t iterate around. And there’s no reason that Cognidox can’t be used throughout all these phases.”